Notes on Haji’s “Deontic Morality and Control: Ch. 3”

Dual-Control Requirements lead to ontic and not just deontic nihilism.

In chapter 3 of Deontic Morality and Control,  Ishtiyaque Haji uses Frankfurt examples to argue that while moral responsibility may not require the principle of alternative possibilities, the concept of moral obligatoriness, rightness and wrongness do in fact stand or fall with the coherence, or lack thereof, regarding the notion of the ability to do otherwise. It makes no sense, Haji maintains, to say that an agent should or must do something if it is the case that he cannot do that thing.  For Haji, “cannot” means both that the agent does not have the ability to do otherwise and/or that he does not have the opportunity to do otherwise.  The former refers to logical possibility while the latter refers to the material or actual possibility in the weightier sense.

There are three principles that ground Haji’s argument for the view that deontic anchors such as rightness, wrongness and obligatoriness require ‘dual-control’:

i) it is obligatory for one to do A only if it is wrong to refrain from doing A

ii) if it is obligatory for an agent to do A then that agent can do A and,

iii) if it is obligatory for an agent to do A then that agent can refrain from doing A

Now, in Frankfurt-type cases, it is stipulated that though the agent may enjoy the (logical) ability to refrain from doing A, the presence of the counterfactual intervener ensures that the agent lacks the opportunity to refrain from doing A, and thus, ensures that his doing A is externally determined.  Haji argues that though the agent in question may still be open to moral appraisals of responsibility and even praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, and even though the act in question (not the agent) can plausibly retain an ascription of goodness and badness, nevertheless it is incoherent in circumstances such as these to say that the agent is obliged to refrain from doing A or that he must or should refrain from doing A or that it is right to refrain from doing A and wrong to do A.  All of this follows from the three principles and ‘dual-control’ requirements stated above.

It goes without saying that the fallout of this argument is striking, for it entails that whenever an agent lacks the opportunity to do otherwise, he is no longer judicable as a moral object and deontic ascriptions of rightness, wrongness, oughts and obligations go out the window. Furthermore, if it is the case, as Haji believes, that metaphysical determinism obtains, then it follows that we are always in Frankfurt-type scenarios and (inconvenience and absurdity aside) that the history of the universe is one big Frankfurt example. Therefore, Haji insists, the concepts of deontic anchors can never be coherently used in judgment.  Moral concepts never apply to the real world and nothing anyone has done, is doing, or will do is right, wrong or obligatory if determinism is true.

I want to argue here that Haji’s argument is devastating not only for deontic anchors but also for ontic anchors as well.  If we accept his view, we should be nihilists not only about morality but also about ontology too, for the modal concept of alternative possibilities is built into ontological categories no less than in moral concepts. (Incidentally this is perhaps why Slavoj Zizek insists, for example, that to be a materialist is to believe that at a fundamental level the world does not exist).

Let’s jump right in to some examples of how modal actuality is determined by modal possibility:

J.J.C. Smart introduces the case of the falling plate.  You are washing the dishes, an ordinary porcelain plate slips from your hands and hits the floor but does not break.  You say to yourself “Phew! I am lucky it didn’t break; after all, it could have broken!”

Smart says that we are perfectly correct to say that the plate ‘could have’ broken even though it did not break because, and insofar as, it is part of the concept of plates that they are breakable because they are generally made of glass or porcelain and porcelain is brittle, or fragile, and that ‘brittle’ is just another way to say ‘breakable’ or ‘able to break’.

But under Haji’s dual-control criterion this would be false since the plate that fell did not break and though it had the logical (conceptual or analytic) possibility of shattering when it hit the floor, in fact, it did not have the opportunity to break because circumstances intervened and ensured that the plate remained intact when it hit the floor.  Thus, if it is true that plates are brittle, and brittle things are breakable, it is not true that whatever hit the floor is either breakable, brittle or a plate, insofar as the counterfactual intervener guarantees that there is no “genuinely” possible world in which the plate breaks when it drops to the ground.  In a merely logically possible world the object that fell to the floor may have been a brittle plate but in the real world it does not bear this predicate with integrity.

But if the object that hit the floor is not a brittle plate then what is it that hit the floor and did not break?  If we remove the predicate of brittleness or breakability from the object then its unity as a particular object disintegrates since for example, brittleness does not apply to the plate’s component molecules taken on their own and it is only true of porcelain that it is brittle in certain amounts and certain shapes.  But if we are no longer talking about the breakable thing, then we are no longer able to talk about the thing that was dropped and hit the floor for it is not the case that the entirety of the object hit the floor (P.S. what floor!? you mean this spot of tiling?). In this respect, it is unclear how the predicates that unify the object of judgment can be accurately applied since to predicate platehood of something is, it seems, bound up with predicating breakability of that very same thing such that if the latter predication is false then so is the former.

Or consider the case of Mary the shut-in colour scientist from Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment. Mary is kept in a room her whole and is not allowed to see any objects or images that reflect red light. Though it is true that she never enjoys the opportunity to see a red object, is it also the case that she does not have the ability to see red? If we say that she has the ability to see red – insofar as we would be willing to say that had she died without having ever seen red it is still accurate to say that she “could have” seen red – is this the same ‘could have’ that Smart uses to say that the fallen plate “could have broken”?  In other words, is the unbroken plate’s breakability equivalent to colour-deprived Mary’s ability to see red?  It would seem that in both cases, the ability requirement is satisfied, but the opportunity requirement is not.

What happens if we use Haji’s argument for dual-control to critique the ontological predication of an object like a porcelain plate?

i) an object is only porcelain if it is breakable

ii) if any object is breakable it must be able to break

iii) if an object is able to break it must be possible for it to refrain from (or resist) breaking

But in Frankfurt-type case, the counterfactual intervener ensures that the object does not break. Therefore, if the universe is a big Frankfurt example then the object is not breakable, is not porcelain and it is not true that it could have broken when dropped because had the circumstances been different (e.g. colder temperature, faster velocity) the counterfactual intervener would come to the rescue and make it the case that the plate still does not break, perhaps by lowering the force of gravity or by cushioning the fall with denser air. Thus, in this scenario it can be said with absolute certainty that the plate will not break. The plate is therefore unbreakable.


However, the sense in which this porcelain plate is unbreakable seems peculiarly different from the sense in which an aluminum plate is said to be unbreakable.  What is the cause of this peculiar difference?  The difference is this: the porcelain plate is disposed to break when dropped and the aluminum plate is not.  Mary is disposed to see red whereas a shark is not. This is getting at the dual control distinction introduced by Haji when he discusses what the meaning of “can” is in “ought implies can”.


For Haji then, it appears that there will be certain predicates that can be ascribed to certain objects only if the latter satisfy one half of the dual control requirement, namely the logical half, which corresponds to ability (in an agential sense) or disposition in a physical sense. But there will be other predicates, specifically deontic anchors,  that require that the object of which they are predicated satisfies both requirements of dual control, namely, ability and opportunity to manifest that predicate.  This asymmetry makes sense. For it is only meaningful to speak of the opportunity to do otherwise in the context of an ability to do otherwise.  But in a deterministic, Frankfurt-type universe, material, or genuine alternative possibilities are ruled out of hand.  But this means that ontic concepts go the wayside with moral concepts since there will be very few things that have the opportunity to instantiate or manifest all of the abilities that we infer of them from their predicates. Many brittle things never break, after all.

But does ability make sense once wrested from the context of opportunity?  It does, but only if we are willing to grant a degree of reality to the potential or, in other words, to the category of essence.

More to follow…


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